Five dangers for Labour as the finish line approaches

by Rob Marchant

And so the election goes down to the wire.

A shaky start for Labour; then two very good weeks; and now a late push by the Tories takes us to the photo finish. The Tories look better for winning the most seats; but Labour seems to have a better shot at forming a government.

It seems that the slightest gust of wind may decide who forms the next government. But for that very reason, both parties must tread very carefully. Here are a list of five dangers for Labour as the finish line approaches.

One: UKIP collapse and last-minute swings to the Tories

While we might, as good left-wingers and non-xenophobes, be delighted to see Nigel Farage apparently getting his comeuppance, we should be careful of what we wish for. Most of the votes which disappear from the UKIP section of the ballot paper reappear as “X”s in the box marked The Conservative Party. That is, UKIP’s collapse is highly dangerous for Labour.

As Lord Ashcroft’s final round of polling in marginal constituencies shows, there is a clear swing back to the Tories, where Labour was far ahead for most of the last year. The pattern is exemplified by Croydon Central: in six months, there has been a ten per cent swing from Labour to Tory, nine of which can be attributed to a collapse in the UKIP vote. Many more cases like that and Labour is in deep trouble.

What can Labour do? Not much. Get out the vote, and cross our fingers.

Two: the SNP

Not before time, Labour has finally started to hit the SNP where it hurts: in the fundamental futility of their message, that another referendum is more important than solving Scotland’s problems. And the thuggishness of some of their supporters, on- and offline.

But they still have the capacity to hurt Labour a lot – in fact, were it not for the SNP’s unexpected surge, Miliband would probably be measuring up the rooms at No. 10 for furniture as we speak.

What can we do? More of the same. We will not do well, but we may avoid a wipeout.

Three: poor judgement calls

Some have argued that Ed Miliband being interviewed by Russell Brand, a comedian noted for previously urging young and impressionable people not to vote, was a good way to tap into his millions of Twitter followers and YouTube viewers, and claim their votes.

It was not. It was no more a good idea than Neil Kinnock appearing in Tracey Ullman’s video of “My Guy” in 1984 (lovingly preserved on YouTube here). It is always a temptation for politicians to try and borrow celebrity glamour, and sometimes it can work. But it must be managed.

For a start, the person in question needs to be a committed and reliable Labour supporter. An Alex Ferguson, say. Not one who says “don’t vote, err, vote Green, no, that’s just in Brighton, I mean vote Labour”. And next week could just as easily say “vote Monster Raving Loony”. Wooing such a person may seem like a good, short-term campaign idea. But statesmanlike it is not, and such things are important.

However, the “Milibrand” interview was nothing next to the foolishness of last weekend.

Four weeks ago, I wrote here that, although things were not going well for Labour, at least it hadn’t had a “Sheffield moment”: a moment redolent of the hubris of 1992’s fateful election rally, shortly followed by a narrow defeat for Neil Kinnock.

Oh, how premature that was. This weekend, for some inexplicable reason, someone in the leadership team thought it would be a great idea to carve out Labour’s six pledges in a big slab of stone, to be planted in either the Rose Garden or party HQ, in the event of Labour winning.

What’s wrong with that? Let me count the ways.

Hubris. Perceived arrogance in assuming a win for Labour. The sheer daftness of the idea, and the fact that there were no heads wise enough to scotch it: an idea that surely would have not occurred to David Cameron in a million years.

Oh, and perhaps someone might have anticipated the killer Twitter hashtag?


I mean, a symbolism of the graveyard is not exactly the positive winning tone we were looking for in our final days, was it?

What. Were. They. Thinking.

If nothing else, surely for someone in the kitchen Cabinet brainstorming session, the words “hostage to fortune” must have appeared in flashing neon letters ten feet high?

A stunt is something for a day, not an albatross which lasts for years. If Labour loses, as it may, the slab will inevitably become “Miliband’s folly”, a symbol of a momentary lapse of judgement, but it will probably be forgotten more quickly. If it wins, it will be worse: it will still be embarrassing the party decades from now.

And worse: what if Labour has to negotiate one of these pledges with another party within days? From a grand symbol carved in stone to a once-over with the Polyfilla.

Four: Gut instinct

When things are balanced on a knife-edge, people will close their eyes in the polling station and go with their gut. This will therefore be the gut instinct election par excellence.

At base, the gut needs to say “reliable, competent statesman” and not “take a chance on me”. It is a tough act to pull off in opposition but, then again, no-one said being Leader of the Opposition was an easy job.

The gut thing didn’t work for Kinnock in 1992. It needs to work for Miliband. See point 3.

Five: forming a government which lacks legitimacy

Last but by no means least: what about the aftermath? If we form the next government, it is most likely to be by the skin of our teeth, whatever the final score – and the Tories the same. But now think about the case where the majority of predictions turn out to be correct and the Tories win the most seats.

Minority government can work. But it’s one thing to do that and be the largest party. It’s another when you aren’t.

Governing as the second-largest party, rather than the largest, has been tried. But not for almost a century, and not very successfully even then (Ramsay McDonald lasted 10 months).

People will throw rocks at you, with the word “legitimacy” painted across them in big letters. The legitimacy debate has already begun. But it is a debate which Labour can only win if it is the largest party.

A weak government might have once – before the 2011 Fixed-term Parliaments Act insisted on a two-thirds majority – led to an early election, which we could win. But it could now well end up in administrative purgatory instead: incapable of doing anything, but unwilling and/or unable to leave office. Or leaving office mid-term, to be replaced by a Tory-led government without an election. Not good.

In the case of securing only second place, Labour has to decide whether it is prepared to risk creating a fundamentally useless government, whose incumbency would be measured in days, not years. A sovereignty to recall less Queen Victoria, more Lady Jane Grey.

The alternative is for the party to regroup and bide its time in opposition, waiting for a Tory slip-up to jump in and form the next government.

All signs point to Labour going for government – it’s human nature, after all. But if we come second, we should resist that temptation. A dignified defeat is infinitely preferable to a mad scramble for power; at all costs, without legitimacy.

And that is the biggest danger of all.

Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour Party manager who blogs at The Centre Left

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21 Responses to “Five dangers for Labour as the finish line approaches”

  1. Ryland1 says:


    if the chance of forming a government arrives we should take it – i havent knocked on over 1200 houses in my area, changed family plans, taken Annual Leave for this week and walked 5 miles already this morning delivering GOTV leaflets to see Labour MP’s sitting and allowing the Tories to win when we have the chance to be in Government. The 96 families in my area who are affected by the bedroom tax need a Labour Government to get rid of the bedroom tax Friday.. if Cameron does get to take a queens speech to a hung Parliament in a few weeks, the only way it could pass would be if one the anti tory parties were to either abstain or vote for it after some sort of discussions. The party which abstains or votes for the tories in this situ would be condemned for ever!

    Labour’s role here is to form a government at the earliest opportunity – either now or later in May

  2. Colin Moulder says:

    You did not read the article, did you? Legitimacy is very important, and coming 2nd means you have not won. It is important because the markets will react in a very negative light because it will be an illegitimate social\marxist government where the majority did not vote for. As for an alliance with SNP, only a very small part of the UK have had the opportunity to vote for SNP candidates so they have no legitimacy in the rest of the UK, the same Sin Fein, DUP, Plaid etc.

    You say Labour’s role is to form a govenrment, the same could be said of the Tories. When Brown was the incumbent 5 years ago, he and Milliband argued the incumbent should get first crack in forming a government, now the reverse is being argued. So the conclusion can only be made that Labour want power whether they deserve it or not.

  3. Michael says:

    There are many voters who Labour because of tradition and class solidarity and a dislike of the Tories. This dislike turned to hate of Thatcher because of deindustrialisation of the 80s but there is a new phenomenon of the last ten years of the same intense hatred of Labour mostly for being blamed for migration of non-EU migration of incompatible and hostile cultures (historically inaccurate though this is as the foundations of mass immigration were capitalists trying to keep uncompetitive industries such as cotton mills working with cheap workers from overseas). It also means that the Labour vote is soft. In HufPo they report that Tory voters are the most likely to not change their vote. This is a complete reversal for Labour.

    The memory of Thatcher and her time will fade (20% of the electorate are born after the miners strike), but the consequences of the open door to low quality migrants is upon us and the problems are increasing. At the height of the Labour open door only 17% of on-EU migrants were coming to work and many new arrivals have never worked (and this is one of the reasons for less and less support for the welfare state). ONS report almost 50% of Pakistanis and Bangladeshis don’t work (compared to less than 20% for Poles and Indians). A cat’s-paw policy of having more border guards but not proposing decreasing eligibility is insulting to the intelligence of the voters. Capture of the Labour party in inner cities by clan politics is also deeply troubling. Even controlling immigration (which is not what Labour is offering) would not halt this decline in enthusiasm for Labour as it is an internal UK issue now. Whatever the result, if Labour don’t properly search its soul and reform it will no longer be a major force in politics in the long term.

  4. Heidstaethefire says:

    “…. that another referendum is more important than solving Scotland’s problems.”
    The S.N.P. have told you repeatedly that this election is not a mandate for another referendum. That will only happen when a mandate is explicitly sought in an election, that election is won and the subsequent referendum gets a positive vote. In other words, it will happen when people want it. The only people talking about a second referendum are Murphy and his desperate crew, and that only because the previous “vote S.N.P, get tory ” has fallen apart. Bitter Together mk 2. Please feel free to continue, however, people up here can see straight through it.

  5. Tafia says:

    My prediction is as follows:-

    1. Cameron will win the most seats but not a majority. He will resign on the spot and recommend to Mrs Windsor that she ask Ed Miliband to try to form a government. (experienced commentators opine that this is a tory ambush)

    2. Miliband, with the second highest number, will be left in an awkward position straight away of being runner-up, outnumbered by the enemy but being forced into power. He agrees to try (through gritted teeth), however he will only attempt it as a minority government consisting solely of his party.

    3. The SNP, SDLP & Plaid and the Lib Dems agree to support his first Queens Speech. At the same time the SNP informally let him know that they intend to make a second referendum the main plank of their Holyrood election manifesto next year and that once they have supported his Queens Speech they will abstain in all future Parliamentary votes.

    4. The SNP are true to their word and for the next 12 months Miliband has a nightmare of a time as he tries to get legislation passed and it ends up watered down or radically altered in order to get votes of the other parties and get it through because the Tories always outnumber him. He lurches from crisis to crisis and the markets react accordingly.

    5. The SNP win a working majority at Holyrood 2016 ad pass a Referendum Bill at Holyrood with a quorum and inform Ed Miliband that from now on, the SNP contingent in Parliament will always vote, and it will always vote against the government unless he yields and grants a second referendum. Miliband refuses. The Tories (by now ahead in the polls) sense blood. Miliband loses his next Finance Bill and the the tories table a motion of No Confidence. Miliband loses and resigns. Nobody is willing to form another government and an election is called for four weeks time and Labour also hurriedly have to have a leadership election before then.

    6. The Tories, now more confident and more right wing, have a manifesto pledge of an EU referendum within 6 months, even naming the date and a pledge to allow Scotland to have it’s second referendum, but this time with a devo-max option as well.

    7. Cameron wins a majority as the UKIP vote collapses and Labour remain in turmoil following their snap leadership election..

    And that is a very very plausible and realistic scenario – IF the tories win the most seats but decline the option of forming a government. (And it looks more likely than not that they are going to have the most seats at somewhere around 275-285)

  6. John. P Reid says:

    Tafia, who’d be new labour leader?

  7. swatantra says:

    I’m afraid Tafia is wrong, at the first hurdle. Yes the Tories will win the most number of seats, and Dave will continue as PM and present a Queens Speech thus posing a dilemma for Nicola and the SNP. Will they vote it down. NO, because they’ll invite the fury of all of England. They’ll abstain. And Milliband will be thwarted. The Lib Dems will probably come to the aid of Dave and old friendships renewed. Its a pessimistic scenario, but the most likely, because 5 years in Oppo may not have been enough for Labour to get its act together.
    If by some fluke Labour get the most seats then Labour should make a go of it and govern, and I’ll be pleased.

  8. Rob Marchant says:

    I find myself unexpectedly agreeing with Tafia, on quite a few points in the above being possible outcomes. Although I am not sure that Cameron would necessarily resign on handing power to Labour.

  9. John P Reid says:

    Set, that’s twice in a day, I’ve agreed with .u

  10. Robert says:

    It would be fundamentally wrong for Labour to give up the chance of forming a government if there is a Labour/SNP/Lib Dem etc majority. These parties have similar policies and they are not as far apart as they pretend on the deficit. It would also be irresponsible to allow a Tory-led government if the result is a government that really cannot do anything. This sort of attitude has resulted in fascism in democracies that are less stable than the UK.

  11. uglyfatbloke says:

    Or….Cameron knows he can’t govern, passes he baton to Ed. Ed fins he has to deal with the gnats but that they are not, after all, the total psychos that he’d been led to believe by Murphy, Curran and Alexander. Practical politics is eased by the absence of ..Murphy, Curran, Davidson and Alexander. Does Cameron resign? Who cares?
    The gnats focus on supporting sensible government without a formal deal and gain a lot of credibility – as they already have in Scotland. They stand on a referendum ticket for Holyrood, win a big majority – after all, absolutely nobody wants a return to the days of the Murphy/Curran/Alexander coterie – have a referendum and win.
    Ed is now seen as making a good fist of a difficult time and as being a a man who can bring all sorts of people together for a progressive agenda, wins the subsequent General Election by a landslide.

  12. Tafia says:

    John P Reid Tafia, who’d be new labour leader?

    Someone unexpected. Seen as a safe competent administrator to oversee reforms within the party, with a shelf life of 2-3 years and then to be replaced. Benn springs to mind. Long term they will go for Tristam Hunt as a sort of Blair mk2.

  13. Matthew Blott says:

    I understand Tony Blair is pretty popular on this site and I do get pretty tired the way some in the Labour Party de-evolve whenever their party’s most electorally successful leader’s name is mentioned. So I’m not a Blair hater but Tafia does seem to be indulging in a bit of a Blair fantasy here. As hard as this is to believe there are a fair few in Labour who think Miliband is too rightwing so there is no reason this Blair like saviour will come along if Miliband steps down. And the scenario outlined by Tafia can only come about if the SNP help remove a Labour government that is replaced by a Conservative one. Not the sort of thing you want to do if you want to win a Scottish referendum.

  14. Madasafish says:

    Here’s another one IF they form the Government:

    Tax hikes won’t fix Britain’s economic mess, warn MPC founders
    Two former Bank of England policymakers warn that the next government will not raise much revenue from higher taxes

  15. BenM says:

    Marchant wants Labour to lose.

    This is what 5 years of harping at the leader comes down to.


  16. Matthew Blott says:

    @ BenM

    Rob’s had his criticisms of the current leader which I don’t always share (though sometimes I do) but your charge is incorrect. He isn’t Dan Hodges.

  17. Tafia says:

    Matthew Blott – I happen to despise Blair. He may well have been Labour’s second most succesful leader (Wilson won four elections), but they were not Labour policies and principles he stood on – he just used the brand name. The problem is enough halfwits in the Labour party would go for a Blair clone because they are shallow enough and cheap enough to think power is more important than principle.

  18. Tafia says:

    if the SNP help remove a Labour government that is replaced by a Conservative one. Not the sort of thing you want to do if you want to win a Scottish referendum.

    The vow of not supporting a Tory government does not mean they won’t Abstain or even vote against a Labour one. If it’s deemed strategically useful to bring down a Labour government then they will and they won’t think twice. It’s all a matter of timing.

  19. John P Reid says:

    Socialist Principles are hard to define ,nationalism, rather than equality ,union right of Workers to dictate government policy being degenitions of the Wilson government,
    Principle of holding onto ideals that looked good on paper,maybe would have worked if they’d been implemented properly,but not keeping ones principles for power, is only. View if ,when seeking equality, we hadn’t took into account that equality in a part capitalist society is only achieved by generating wealth,and people have the right to choose if they want to earn more money by having a different job,

    Regarding Blair,he appealed to Skilled working Class in Essex & Kent, and the West coast, e swing seats that decided editions, Labour have given up on them as they feel with groups like skilled public sector women, there’s a range of voters who can help change elections, certainly demographics, of immigration and nationality have been felt to help, White flight form the Inner cities etc.

    But the move of the working class in non marginals , firm Labour areas up north ,to voting UKIP, aren’t the sort of people who would come back with a Blair clone, they’re the people Blue Labour appeals too.

    If I was Chuka Ummuna I’D say I’ll only be 48 in 2025′ don’t look Like we’ll win in 2020′ let Cruddas or worse Burnham be leader, Be the Michael Howard one, we’ll lose in 2020 then take over, obviously I’d like Simon Danzuk or John Mann too take over, but I doubt it’ll happen.

    The only support labour can rely on too win in 2025 would be winning in37% of. The vote on a low turn out,

  20. Mike says:

    uglyfatbloke – Miliband could make a reasonable fist out of things but would not win a landslide. Labour haven`t polled above 36% for 10 years. That seems to be their high point and it is close to 100 years since a full term Government have increased their support. SO limping in at 34% doesn`t bode well. The Tories could decend into warafe when choosing a new leader, but maybe not. UKIP fading (if Farage doesn`t get elected) will help the Conservatives more.

  21. John P Reid says:

    Mike technically the percentage of votes the Government got was 59% as it was a coalition, so even if the Tories got a overall majority with 37% of the vote it would pnt be a increase.

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